Evaluating the New Perspective on Paul (5) What Does Paul Mean by ‘Works of the Law’?

‘Works of the Law’, Human Inability and Boasting

In my previous articles, I noted that, in order to evaluate the claims of the new perspective regarding the interpretation of the apostle Paul, we need to begin by considering three distinct, though related, questions:

  1. First, what does the apostle Paul mean by the language of “works of the law” or “works,” when he insists that no one is justified by them? Do the “works of the law” refer exclusively to what Dunn and Wright call the “boundary markers” of the law?
  2. Two, does the apostle Paul oppose the teaching of justification by works on the basis of his conviction that no one is able to do what the law requires? Or, is the real and primary occasion for Paul’s argument against justification by works of the law, his conviction that, now that Christ has come, the only way of inclusion among the people of God is through faith in Christ (arguing, as Sanders puts it, from “solution” to “plight”)?
  3. And third, is it correct to claim, as the Reformation did, that Paul opposed the “Judaizers” for teaching that justification rests upon human obedience to the requirements of the law?

Does the apostle Paul oppose a “legalistic” distortion of the doctrine of justification, which taught that acceptance with God depends in some measure upon works of obedience to the law?

Having treated the first of these three questions, we now need to take up the second and third. Does the apostle Paul argue in his epistles that the law exposes human inability before God? Does he oppose a form of teaching that expressed a kind of “legalistic” insistence upon justification by works of obedience to the law’s stipulations?

As we have noted, these questions go to the heart of the new perspective’s claims that the reformational reading of the apostle Paul was misplaced. The Reformation’s claim that Paul taught that no one is able to do what the law requires and thereby find acceptance with God misses the real point of Paul’s gospel. Paul was not so much focussed upon the question of how sinners can find acceptance with God as he was upon the question of how the promise to Abraham now included Gentiles as well as Jews. The problem posed by his opponents was not their claim to self-justification before God but their exclusion of the Gentiles from receiving the covenant inheritance promised to Abraham.

Does The Law Expose Human Inability?

Writers of the new perspective are well aware of the apostle Paul’s polemics against any righteousness before God that comes by way of the law. In Galatians 2:16 Paul insists that righteousness comes through faith in Jesus Christ, and not by the works of the law. Indeed, if righteousness were to come through the law, Christ would have died for no purpose (Galatians 2:21). Or, to cite the familiar words of Romans 3:21, “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” However we interpret this contrast between law- and faith-righteousness, Paul’s clear insistence upon it can scarcely be denied.

According to the new perspective on Paul, however, the Reformation’s explanation of this contrast between the law and faith misses the mark. According to the reformational view, the law principally functions (its so-called “first use”) as a “teacher of sin” (usus paedagogicus).1 In this understanding of the law, one of its most important functions is to make known, even to aggravate, the problem of human sinfulness and inability before God. The law by itself serves only to expose and diagnose the problem of human sinfulness. What the law requires, no one is able to perform. The law serves the purpose of condemning before God all, whether Jews or Gentiles, who fail to do what it requires. Thus, the law leads the believer to Christ who, because He perfectly kept the law and suffered its curse, is our righteousness before God.



Writers of the new perspective offer a very different explanation of the problem with the law. E. P. Sanders, for example, maintains that Paul’s primary objection to the law is based upon his Christology. Because Paul teaches that faith in Christ is the way of salvation, he rejects the law. Paul argues, in Sanders’ understanding of his doctrine of justification, from “solution” (faith in Christ) to “plight” (not by the law). Paul is not arguing against the law, therefore, because he believes it is inherently defective or unable to provide a means of salvation. The problem with the law and Judaism is that they are not Christianity.2

In a modification of this approach, Dunn and Wright argue that Paul’s problem with the law was due, not to the inability of Jews or Greeks to do what it requires, but to its “exclusivism.”3 Those who insisted upon obedience to the law (the Judaizers) did so in order to exclude non-Jews from membership in the covenant community. Paul primarily opposed the law in its “social” function, namely, as an instrument of Jewish exclusivism, rather than its “theological” function, namely, as an instrument to expose human sinfulness before God. Whether one takes the approach of Sanders or of Dunn/Wright to the problem of the law, neither approach leaves much room for an emphasis upon the law’s condemning or accusing function. Viewed from the perspective of the progress of redemptive history, the law is deficient because it is superceded with the coming of Christ.

Without attempting to treat all of the relevant passages in Paul’s writings that deal with this function of the law, it is not difficult to adduce several passages that support the reformational understanding of the law’s function to expose human inability.

Galatians 3:10

In Galatians 3:10, a passage we considered earlier in respect to Paul’s use of the expression “works of the law,” the apostle writes, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’”

To appreciate the point the apostle Paul makes in this verse, it is critical to observe that it falls within the context of his preceding claim that no one can be justified by “works of the law” (compare Galatians 2:16; 3:5). Though no explanation was given previously as to why this is the case, Galatians 3:10 clearly intimates that it is due to the inability and failure of anyone to abide by all things written in the book of the law.

The opening conjunction, “for,” indicates that Paul is now offering an explanation of the failure of the law as a means of justification. The problem lies in the impossibility of anyone doing what the law requires. To escape God’s curse, it is necessary to do all that the law demands. Since no one obeys the law perfectly, no one can hope to escape the law’s curse by attempting to perform what it stipulates. The conclusion, therefore, is that all who seek to obtain salvation by means of the law fall under the curse of God.

As we argued previously, when considering this text in connection with Paul’s use of the language of the “works of the law,” the problem Paul is outlining goes beyond the failure of his opponents to observe the “boundary marker” requirements of the law. This is apparent from Paul’s citation of Deuteronomy 27:26. In the context of Deuteronomy 27-30, this passage threatens the people of Israel with the divine curse for any failure to observe the law of God.

Those who hope to obtain the blessing of God in terms of their obedience to the law’s requirements, may only hope to do so by perfectly obeying the law. Any failure, even failure in respect to the least part of what the law demands, forfeits the blessing of God and brings the certain prospect of judgment. Therefore, if anyone seeks to find favor with God on the basis of the works of the law, he will undoubtedly be unable to achieve what he seeks.4

Galatians 5:3

Since we also treated this verse in our previous consideration of Paul’s use of the language of “works” and “works of the law,” we will restrict our comments here to the question of human inability. In this verse, the apostle solemnly warns his opponents that their insistence upon the obligation of circumcision carries with it the further obligation to do all that the law requires. “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.”

When the apostle uses the expression, “again,” he means to refer to something he had previously written. It is quite likely that this is a reference to Galatians 3:10, and that the point being made is quite similar. Those who accept circumcision and require it of others in order to acknowledge their inclusion among the covenant people of God, must recognize that they assume thereby an obligation to the whole law. Since his opponents link their justification before God with circumcision (compare Galatians 5:4), they must be warned that they have embarked upon a course that obligates them to everything in the law. Nothing less than obedience to the law in its entirety will serve to justify those who seek to be justified by the law.

The most obvious interpretation of Paul’s argument at this point would be that he believed no one was capable of such obedience to the whole law. The problem confronting his opponents is not simply that they have chosen a way of justification other than the way of faith in Christ. The problem is also that they have chosen a way of justification that cannot be traveled. Those who would seek to be justified by the law will only find frustration and defeat owing to their failure to keep the entirety of the law’s obligations.

Romans 3:9-26

One of the more significant and extended passages on the subject of the law’s exposure of human inability is Romans 3:9–26. This passage, which follows a lengthy treatment of the way God’s wrath is being revealed against all the ungodliness and wickedness of men in Romans 1:18–2:29, presents a powerful indictment of all sinners, Jews and Gentiles alike, before the judgment seat of God.

After an opening section that outlines the privileges and advantages that belong to the Jews (vv. 1–8), the apostle Paul appeals to a variety of Old Testament texts in verses 9-18 in order to prove that “all, both Jews and Gentiles, are under the power of sin” (v. 9). Whatever advantages the Jews may possess, including the rite of circumcision and the reception of the oracles of God, these are of no value so far as their standing before God is concerned. “There is none righteous, no, not one,” says the apostle (v. 10). “All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (v. 12). Unrelentingly, the apostle adduces a variety of Scriptural passages to prove the point: all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

What is especially important to our purpose, however, is the way the apostle sums up the role of the law in his indictment of human sinfulness.

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin (vv. 19–20).

The imagery of this passage is quite compelling and dramatic. The law is represented to function much like a prosecutor in a court of law, though the court in question in this passage is the court of heaven. So compelling is the prosecutor/law’s case, that every mouth is stopped or silenced. No word can be offered in defense that would answer to the law’s accusation. Thus, the apostle concludes that no human being can find justification before God by the works of the law. The law serves only to make sin known. It cannot and does not serve to justify anyone before the judgment seat of God. Because the law is powerless to serve as a means of justification, the apostle concludes that the only way to find forgiveness and favor with God is through faith in Jesus Christ (vv. 21–26). Only on the basis of Christ’s work of atonement and blood shed are sinners justified by God’s grace as a gift.

The Law Aggravates the Problem of Sin

In Romans 3:9–26 and the other passages we have considered, it seems evident that the apostle Paul regarded the law, at least in one of its uses, as an instrument that exposes human inability and sinfulness. Consistent with the emphasis of these passages, there are other passages in Paul’s writings that speak of the law’s function to make known and to aggravate the problem of human sin and guilt before God.

In Romans 3:20, he speaks of the way knowledge of sin comes “through the law.” Rather than the law serving as a means of justification, it serves as a means of disclosing the inescapable guilt of all human beings who fall short of what it requires. Remarkably, in some of these passages the apostle can even speak of the law, not only in its disclosure of human sin, but also in its stimulation of further sinfulness.

In Romans 5:20, for example, we read that “the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” Similarly, in the well-known and much-disputed passage on the law in Romans 7, Paul, while affirming that the law is “holy and righteous and good” (v. 12), notes that the law is powerless to effect what it demands.

Due to human depravity and sin, the law’s demands only “make sin known” (v. 7) and serve to “arouse our sinful passions” (v. 5). When the law declares, “you shall not covet,” it makes sin come alive and thus brings death (vv. 9–10).5 Because the law by itself can only aggravate and expose the reality of human sin and guilt, the apostle describes the ministry of the law (of Moses) in II Corinthians 3 as a “ministry of condemnation” and “of death” (vv. 7,9). Unlike the ministry of the Spirit of Christ, which gives life from the dead, the ministry of the “letter” can only kill (v. 6).

One of the more significant ways in which the apostle sets forth the law’s function to expose and aggravate the problem of human sinfulness is his use of the expressions, “under the law” and “under sin.” These expressions are used synonymously in Romans 6:14, “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.”

By using these expressions as synonyms, Paul suggests that to be “under the law” is tantamount to being under the tyranny of sin. To be “under grace” is tantamount to being freed from the power and dominion of sin. In the epistle to the Galatians, the apostle also uses language that intimates a close connection between the law and the problem of human sin. For example, he speaks of those who are “under a curse” due to their failure to abide by all that is written in the book of the law (3:10). He speaks of those who are “imprisoned under sin” by the Scripture, “so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (3:22). When speaking of “Scripture” in this text, it is likely that Paul is referring to the Torah, the inscripturated administration of the Mosaic covenant. All who “under the law” (3:23; 4:4–5; 5:18), remain “under a pedagogue” (3:25), “under guardians and managers” (4:2), and “under the elements of the world” (4:3). In all of these expressions, the apostle underscores the sharp contrast between being under the law, which can only bring the curse and death due to its violators, and being “in Christ,” which brings blessing and life to all who through faith are joined to him. In the older reformational understanding of these expressions, the law’s role as a “pedagogue” was primarily viewed in negative and personal terms.6 By means of this kind of language, Paul was understood to emphasize the way in which the law of Moses condemned all who failed to abide by its provisions. However, among writers of the new perspective, it is often argued that this represents a failure to read Paul’s argument in terms of its salvation-historical framework. According to this view, when Paul speaks of the law as a “pedagogue” or a “guardian,” he means only to stress its role at an earlier point in the course of redemptive history, namely, during the period of Israel’s adolescence or immaturity. In this period, the role of the law was primarily positive, ensuring Israel’s life and preserving her against sin until the coming of Christ.

The law functions, therefore, in a positive manner to prepare Israel for the coming of Christ. But now that Christ has come, the law has been superceded and surpassed. To remain “under the law,” therefore, would be to deny the significance of Christ’s coming and the way in which he surpasses the law. Critical to this approach to Paul’s language regarding the law, particularly the expression of being “under the law,” is that it offers a substantial alternative to the Reformation’s claim that the law’s pedagogical function was to expose the power and guilt of human sinfulness.

Though it is undoubtedly true that the Paul’s descriptions of the law and what it means to be “under the law” are shaped by his conviction regarding the progress of redemptive history, any attempt to treat the law in unduly benign terms does not do justice to Paul’s language. The problem with the law is not simply that it is surpassed or even displaced by the new covenant in Christ. Rather, the problem with the law is that it held its subjects “captives,” and “imprisoned” them “until the coming faith would be revealed” (Gal. 3:23; cf. v. 22).

No doubt, in doing so the law served to lead its subjects by the hand to Christ, in whom righteousness is revealed and the promise of the covenant realized. In this respect, the law and the promise in Christ are companions, and the law as guardian serves the blessed purpose of preparing its subjects for the coming of Christ. Nonetheless, the particular way in which the law prepares its subjects for Christ is by aggravating and revealing the problem of human transgressions.

In this connection, it is important to note that Paul’s language about the law as “pedagogue” and “guardian” occurs in the context of Galatians 3:19, “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.” When Paul uses the language, “because of transgressions,” to explain the purpose for which the law was given, it does not seem likely that he is speaking positively about the law. Though some suggest that this language expresses the idea of a “restraint” upon sin, this suggestion is not consistent with the language Paul uses regarding the law in the immediate context of Galatians 3:19ff. or, for that matter, in the argument of the epistle. In the verses that follow Galatians 3:19, he maintains that the law captivates all under the power of sin (vv. 21–22).

In the preceding and following context of the argument in Galatians, the apostle insists that justification occurs not by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. This insistence would be buttressed by an argument that the law exacerbates the problem of sin; however, it would be weakened by the claim that the law actually served the benign purpose of diminishing sin. Such a claim could hardly reinforce Paul’s argument with his Jewish-Christian opponents that the law serves as an instrument for justification. Furthermore, a similar expression is used by the apostle Paul in Romans 5:20, “Now the law came in to increase the transgression.” Galatians 3:19 likely says more than Romans 5:20, namely, that the law incites or increases transgressions.


1.Writers in the Reformed tradition usually distinguish this use of the law from two other uses: the “political or civil use” (usus politicus sive civilis), which refers to the law’s function in restraining sin within the civil order, and the “didactic or normative use” (usus didacticus sive normativus), which refers to the law’s function in ordering the believer’s life of gratitude.

2. E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1977), pp. 442–47, 474–511.

3. Dunn, “Works of the Law and the Curse of the Law (Galatians 3.10–14),” in Jesus, Paul, and the Law Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), pp. 215–241; Wright, “The Law in Romans 2,” in J. D. G. Dunn, ed., Paul and the Mosaic Law (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 131–150.

4. I deliberately use the singular here to reject an interpretation of this passage that regards the curse in exclusively “corporate” terms. Cf. N. T. Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), pp. 137–56, who argues that Paul would have excluded himself from this predicament (after all, Paul says in Philippians 3:6 that he was “blameless” with respect to the law!). Though this argument is highly unlikely when you consider Paul’s self-testimony in other passages (Rom. 7; 1 Cor. 15:8–9; cf. 1 Tim. 1:15), it fails to do justice to the singular forms Paul uses in Galatians 3:10–13 (“everyone,” “no one,” “the one”).

5. Cf. Thomas Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), p. 73: “Paul takes a step further … in his theology of the law. Most Jews of his day believed that a greater understanding of the contents of the law would curb the sinful impulse and prevent sin from dominating a person’s life. Paul turns this theology on its head by saying that the law does not restrain sin but stimulates and provokes it.”

6. Hence the language of the “pedagogical” or “first use” of the law, as a means of exposing human disobedience and guilt. See fn 1 above.

Dr. Cornel Venema is the President of Mid-America Reformed Seminary where he also teaches Doctrinal Studies. Dr. Venema is a contributing editor to The Outlook.